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4.45 pm

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): The Queen’s Speech contains radical proposals on families, climate change, housing and local government. I want to focus on local government and the empowerment of local communities so it is fitting that I follow the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). I congratulate him on his success in bringing in the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and on the prospect of its enactment.

Many communities feel a sense of detachment, and in this place and elsewhere politicians have debated how we can get our local communities to re-engage with the democratic process. Part of the difficulty is that people can perceive the problems with their communities—they live with them every day—but there is a disconnection between the solutions and their enactment. When people express concern to us about local community issues, we as politicians need to engage them in the implementation of the solutions.

As a Member who works with the local community to try to deal with some of the problems, I feel frustrated that I have no decision-making powers to will people the resources to carry out the changes they want. People in my community propose excellent
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projects that would make a huge difference, but those projects fall by the wayside because there are neither the resources nor the capacity, through statutory or other bodies, to support such schemes into fruition.

If we are to engage with local communities, we need to bring about change in the way that local government and other local statutory bodies work. For that, we need flexibility so I welcome the consultation document produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government—the action plan for empowering local communities—which states that there will be a reduction in the number of targets set locally to allow local authorities more flexibility.

Most of the Members who have spoken in the debate have a local government background, so we know that by the time a local authority receives its rate support grant and other funding 99 per cent. of the money has already been spent on all the statutory functions of local government, such as schools, social services or support for children in care. There is little flexibility in the budget to meet the challenging demands that will come from the empowerment of local communities.

I urge the Government to consider targeting those powers so that it is not just the sharp-elbowed, well-educated communities that come first and get what they want, but the most deprived and challenged communities are helped to engage in improving the quality of life in their area. If the engagement and empowerment of local communities is to work, the process has to drill down to them, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said. People are already engaged—they know what is wrong in their communities—and we have to find mechanisms to encourage them and give them a supporting hand to take things to the next stage. Quite often other communities with the wherewithal jump to the front of the queue before the deprived communities get a chance. That is where we must make a difference.

I welcome the measures on the empowerment of local councillors; I would have welcomed them when I was a local councillor. However, they might provide an opportunity for people to make trouble just to make a name for themselves. We must be careful to ensure that the councillors empowered to work up projects in their local communities are not just politically motivated and that they are genuinely of the community and for the community. For example, it is easy to organise a petition for speed humps in a road, to demand that the road humps are put in place and then to complain about the council if that is not done. I am sure that we have all been guilty of doing something similar in the past. However, is that community empowerment or is community empowerment about enabling the parents who are concerned about the lack of facilities for young people to come forward to say that something should be done about that? The latter is the real change that we need.

I very much welcome the idea of transferring assets but not the idea of the well heeled, well-educated sections of the community coming forward to elbow their way to taking over the running of services in their area. Real changes must take place in the communities where the changes are most needed. However, there is a great deal of good will towards the idea of people coming forward to participate and we must provide the basics so that local people can be empowered to take
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over the running of local assets and services for themselves. The schemes must be sustainable.

Neighbourhood renewal will come to an end at the end of March next year. I have chaired a local neighbourhood renewal project and, through talking to the local community and challenging the local authority to respond to the issues that have been put on the agenda by the local community and not by officers from the local authority, we have actually managed to implement some enormous changes. We now have an adult learning centre at a local school in which £1.5 million has been invested to make it fully accessible to the disabled. The school has been expanded further by introducing a children’s centre. The seedcorn money for that came from decisions that were made at the local neighbourhood renewal panel and that money set everything in train. Ideas came from the local school with the support of the local community and the arguments were put forward at the neighbourhood renewal panel. Therefore, the decisions were made by local people. Similarly with neighbourhood wardens, and the initiative that we took with Charlton Athletic football club that has brought youth work on to the estates, it has all come about as the result of community initiatives—people becoming involved, perceiving a problem and identifying what they would like to do to solve it.

We need to find the resources to enable people to become involved. The key to change is having the resources and the local community having the power to take decisions about those resources without the decisions being made for it. Having the decisions taken elsewhere leads to disengagement. Instead, those who perceive the problem should be part of finding its solution.

If we are to empower local communities, we should also empower the tenants to decide who should be their landlord. If we talk about empowering local communities, we are not consistent if we continue to deny local tenants the opportunity to remain council tenants if that is their wish. Any future arrangements for the financing of housing should include that option. Tenants should not be forced down the route of becoming an arm’s length management organisation or any other body that is at arm’s length from the local authority. However, if that happens and difficulties arise, the assumption should be that the housing returns to the control of the local authority and does not pass into the private sector or anywhere else.

In the few minutes that I have left, I would like to discuss planning. Several Members have said that the crisis in housing has grown despite the Government’s efforts over the past 10 years. In a report that was published in June, the Royal Town Planning Institute indicated that a start date was awaited for the building programmes for 225,000 homes on 14,000 acres of land, although planning permission for the homes had been given. I recently met the private company that has just taken on responsibility for developing the Kidbrooke area. We are going to knock down 1,900 homes on an estate and replace them with 4,400 homes, and we are about a third to half way through decanting the estate. The private company will submit a planning application in the new year to start the first phase of the development. When I asked how long the company would be on site from beginning to end, I was told that
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it would take 10 to 15 years to build 4,400 homes. It cannot be right that it will take that long to implement such a development.

Given that the RTPI indicates that 225,000 homes are awaiting building start dates, we will have to set timetables for the implementation of planning applications because we will otherwise not meet the targets that we are setting ourselves. I am absolutely sick and tired of three generations of a family who live in the same home coming to see me in my surgery when I know that there is little that I can do to help them to find housing. The problem is that we are not building homes quickly enough. The planning permission is in place, but the development is not happening.

I welcome the Government’s proposals for trying to streamline some of the processes involved in public inquiries. It might be fine strategically if they are going to set a national plan for three nuclear power stations and then leave the planning commission to sort that out. However, with regard to the Thames Gateway bridge, if it were said, “We need a bridge in east London,” and that was left to an inquiry, that would not be acceptable.

4.57 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I shall touch on several issues that were raised by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), which relate principally to poor Government statistics, their poor use and their impact on the funding of services in Brent.

My first example relates to Office for National Statistics information and migration figures. Brent’s population was given as 269,000 in the 2001 census and ONS thought that it had increased by only 1,800 by mid-2006. Of course, ONS statistics are used to predict the grant settlement for local government, as well as to determine the funding of local health services. Those statistics show that Brent’s population should be broadly static over the next three years, but the Greater London authority’s projections of Brent’s population, which take account of planned housing developments, estimate that Brent’s population is 279,000 and that it will increase to 290,000 by 2011. Those estimates are more in line with council figures on school registrations and the housing transfer list, which shows that some 20,000 families in Brent are waiting to be re-housed.

Work commissioned by Brent council from Professor Les Mayhew that involved such data as GP registrations, school databases and housing and council tax records—all the different types of databases were correlated, which is what the hon. Lady was talking about—demonstrated that Brent’s population in July 2007 could have been as high as 289,000. There is thus a massive discrepancy between the figures that we believe to be true in Brent and those that the Government use. ONS figures in mid-2006 showed that there were 47,000 children under the age of 14 in Brent, whereas Revenue and Customs figures based on child benefit entitlement indicated that there were 52,000 children aged under 14, so the Government have massive discrepancies in their databases.

The issue is not just migration but churn. We have the highest rate of houses in multiple occupancy in the country, so there is a very transient population. On
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migration, along with Newham, Brent has the highest number of non-UK national insurance registrations of any council area in the country. That gives some indication of the scale of migration in and out of the borough.

Each person who is undercounted costs the council £500 a year in Government grant. That has a massive impact on funding. The projected undercounting, and the historical and current position, has a massive impact on the funding of services in Brent. Also, changes in formulae for adult and children’s social care funding have adversely affected many London local authorities. Those factors combined have meant that Brent is on the floor when calculating the grant settlement. As the Minister for Local Government pointed out earlier this year, the comprehensive spending review for 2007 is a very tight settlement for local authorities. There is real anxiety that if there is a big differentiation between councils that are on the average and those that are on the floor, councils such as Brent—one of the most needy local authorities in the country—may get a settlement at less than the rate of inflation. That would represent a real-terms cut in the money that is available for valuable local services for vulnerable people in my constituency.

Brent has five of the 200 most deprived wards in London and, as in many boroughs, there is massive pressure on the social services budget. The sweetener for local authorities in the comprehensive spending review—that 2 per cent. supplementary business rate—is not accessible to any London local authority because it goes to the Greater London authority to pay for Crossrail. In fact, local authorities in London will have to pay as a result, because they will have to pay on their own council buildings.

There are other pressures on the budget. For example, cost-shunting from the health service is estimated at £11 million. I should like to return to that, if I have time. There is also the impending reform of the neighbourhood renewal money. Brent currently receives £2.27 million a year from the neighbourhood renewal fund, which is spent in the most deprived neighbourhoods in the borough—Harlesden, Stonebridge, St. Raphael’s, Brentfield and the Church End estate. It is spent on targeted employment intervention, community safety work such as tackling gun and knife crime—a massive problem in my constituency—reassurance policing in Harlesden and St. Raphael’s, and award-winning extended schools projects, such as that at Mitchell Brook primary school.

There is real anxiety that if that money is cut in any way, it will undermine the work that is being done. Working with the most deprived communities requires a long-term build-up of trust. If we put money in and then take it away before people have had the chance to build relationships with their community, we might as well not have provided the money in the first place. My plea to Ministers is that they should think about how they reform the fund, so that long-term work is sustainable and can be continued.

The second issue related to statistics concerns funding for education in Brent. The most immediate crisis is in capital funding. There has been a dramatic rise in population, both through migration and birth
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rate, and it is putting immense pressure on Brent’s schools. Of course, in such matters the Government use not ONS statistics but school rolls. However, the system that they use does not appear to be capable of keeping pace with the rapid population rise in Brent. The lower end of the projection, which is based on housing capacity, is that the shortfall in school places could be as much as five forms of entry for primary schools by 2009-10, and eight forms of entry for secondary schools by 2016. I already see the impact in my constituency work: distressed parents find that they are unable to get a school for their child.

In the short term, there has been a 7 per cent. increase in applications for reception just this year. Four emergency primary classes have had to be opened, some of which are in temporary classrooms. The council is trying to place in primary schools 80 children who have arrived in Brent since September this year. All the secondary schools are already full, apart from one Catholic boys’ school. The council is trying to place 100 children who have arrived since September in secondary schools. In addition, 200 secondary-school children are currently in specialist language or GCSE short courses, and will need to transfer to mainstream places as soon as possible.

The primary capital programme is available in 2009, but it comes too late for Brent. Brent needs that help now. We are somewhere between waves 7 and 11 of building schools for the future. The problem with that programme is that it relies on rolls falling nationally, and does not cater for places such as Brent where the rolls are rising very rapidly indeed. The only funding system for building new schools is the academies programme. Regardless of one’s political view about that programme, it is the only system available for the council to build a new school in Brent.

The John Kelly schools in my constituency are teaching twice as many students as they were built to teach. Most of the extra capacity is provided by temporary classrooms, which have been in existence for 30 years. They are an absolute disgrace, and I request that a Minister come and see the state of those buildings and the conditions in which students and teachers are working. It is remarkable that the schools manage to achieve the results that they do. Brent is classified as one of the six local authorities that must pay inner-London weighting to staff but which are treated as outer London boroughs for the purpose of funding. That same discrepancy occurs in the health system. I raised the issue with Ministers in 2004, when I was promised that the situation would be looked at again. The council estimates that the problem costs between £3 million and £4 million in education funding, but Ministers have not reviewed the issue. I hope that they do so, because it leaves children in Brent short-changed by a considerable amount of money. The same situation affects colleges in Brent, which receive almost no area uplift compared with other parts of London.

In the final two minutes available to me, I wish to turn to the issue of health. I have mentioned the discrepancy in funding for inner and outer London, which affects health as well. The projected population statistics affect the money available for health services in Brent. The problem is compounded by mismanagement and pressures on the doctors’ contract, targets and top slicing by the
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London strategic health authority, which have impacted on the capital’s primary care trusts. PCTs in Brent managed to reach the heady heights of being in debt to the tune of £53 million earlier this year, and have undertaken devastating cuts to preventive health care. We have seen a retreat to reactive services—I believed that that health service policy was long gone—so while the Government have made all the right noises on preventive health, I am afraid that in Brent the impact of health cuts has produced a different result.

I have spoken before about the impact on children’s services and the clinics that have been closed, but I should like to raise a few other issues that are very pressing indeed in Brent. The teenage pregnancy rate in Brent is much higher than the national average, and there have been cuts in school nursing services and in sexual health funding. Smoking cessation services have been cut, and healthy eating educational work will be undermined by school nursing cuts and the closure of school clinics. The educational achievements of looked-after children and those with special educational needs will be undermined by vast cuts to physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and educational psychologist services. Tuberculosis services have been cut, which is quite astonishing, as Brent is the worst affected borough in London, and has suffered from the withdrawal of joint working with the council on regeneration services. Those cuts will last a lifetime, and they will affect a generation. I implore the Government to think again, and look at how services are funded in Brent.

5.9 pm

Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): In 2050, when a grateful nation reads the record of this historic debate, it will look in particular at the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Patrick Hall) and for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) and for Cambridge (David Howarth), and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who provided cross-party consensus on the Climate Change Bill. That consensus is built on a sane and rational approach, and it goes well beyond anything that we have experienced in party politics for a very long time. I, too, hope to contribute to that sane and rational approach in the remaining 10 minutes available to me.

I welcome the Bill. It builds on the leadership that Tony Blair created at Gleneagles and with the commissioning of the Stern review. However, 10 kg of good hard work can be undone by 1 g of poor work. If we try to undermine the European Union’s 20 per cent. renewables target by going for the smallest possible contribution—perhaps 10 per cent. or less—that will do considerable harm to our reputation. Many speakers this afternoon said that the target of 60 per cent. in the Bill should be increased. Indeed, the Prime Minister himself has said so. There is wide consensus now about a higher figure. The Stern review, the intergovernmental panel on climate change, the Exeter science conference and informed opinion around the world all suggest that our targets must be far higher.

In a speech on Monday this week, the leading Democrat candidate for the White House said that she would negotiate mandatory targets and that that would include a cut of 80 per cent. in United States emissions
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by 2050. Has she not paid attention to our caution? She added that she wanted America to lead the “global green revolution” and said that such an ambitious target would help to create 5 million new jobs. She said:

At last we have somebody heading for the White House who can put two and two together. She also said:

that is, climate change—

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